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Obama's Historic Mideast Gamble

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
May 21, 2011
Daily Beast


I cry for the peoples of the Mideast whose ancient hatreds won't bend to reason or human need. I feel for U.S. presidents forever pressured to cure these centuries-old grudges and shape a new and democratic Mideast, though the region's ailments are rooted in a past accessible only to the haters themselves. Thus, for all his intelligence and fairness, President Obama was not to be envied last week when his latest policy prescriptions were inevitably expectorated by Palestinians as not nearly enough and by Israelis as far too much—and when his ideas for advancing regional democracy were largely ignored by Arab leaders preoccupied by tribal, religious, and power rivalries.

Entwined within this Gordian knot is a truth so terrible as to be rarely spoken. It is that Arabs hate two peoples, not one—the Jews, of course, and also, shockingly, the Palestinians. Yes, the Arabs incessantly demand justice for Palestinians, but the words belie a historical pattern of using Israel as a whipping boy to deflect attention from Arab injustices. Thus, their Arab champions allow Palestinians to fester in refugee camps throughout the region, make no effort to integrate them into their own societies, and provide them with only the most modest economic assistance. Arab leaders and intellectuals say this is necessary to sustain pressure on Israel to take Palestinian refugees back. Yet, they know full well this will never happen. Arabs themselves keep the Palestinians segregated, perhaps because they do not like or trust them, perhaps because they see Palestinians as an inferior tribe or a superior one, perhaps as too demanding, perhaps as too much like the Jews who sprang from the same Abrahamic loins. And Palestinians have often returned these same unkind sentiments in kind, as when they sought to overthrow King Hussein of Jordan in the 1960s and cheered as Saddam Hussein's Iraq troops conquered Kuwait in 1991.

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